Mystery Train

Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music

Greil Marcus

In this newly updated Folio edition, Greil Marcus’s masterful history of rock ‘n’ roll and American culture, Mystery Train, is beautifully illustrated with archive photography and full-colour album covers, introduced by the author.


‘Gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of rock ‘n’ roll’ 

  1. Bruce Springsteen

On its publication in 1975, Mystery Train was hailed as a revolutionary book about popular music. It has proved inspirational to critics and musicians alike: Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and David Bowie (who counted it as one of his 100 favourite books) are among the many to have expressed their admiration. Taking its title from one of Elvis Presley’s greatest singles, the book chronicles the growth of rock ‘n’ roll from its roots in the blues, gospel and country music of the Deep South. Greil Marcus profiles six pioneering artists, finding in their stories a way to ‘deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture’. In their lives and music, he finds echoes of Abraham Lincoln, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick and countless other icons of the United States. The Folio edition adds wholly new and exclusive material to Marcus’s legendary Notes and Discographies section, bringing it right up to date.

Production Details

Bound in screen-printed textured paper

Set in Benton Modern with Bureau Grot Condensed as display

552 pages

59 integrated black & white images, and 8 pages of colour images including 1 double-page spread

Blocked slipcase

9½˝ x 6¼˝   


Their stories are hardly the whole story, but they can tell us how much the story matters. That is what this book is about.

  1. From the Prologue

Mystery Train is a book of two parts. In the opening section, the journey begins with two rock ‘n’ roll ‘ancestors’, the all-but-forgotten white country singer Harmonica Frank, who plied his act at fairs and medicine shows, and black Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, suspected of striking a deal with the devil for his raucous talent. Their tales set the stage for chapters on Marcus’s four ‘inheritors’, all of whose recordings ‘dramatise a sense of what it is to be an American’. They are The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley – who receives the lengthiest treatment in a chapter considered a tour de force of music writing.

Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons.


Mystery Train is among those rare books that is still alive and brewing, like yeast’
  1. New York Times

The six essays that make up the first part of Mystery Train have been little altered since the book’s original publication. But over the course of its six previous editions, Greil Marcus has kept on expanding the second section – his famous Notes and Discographies – into a treasury of facts, digressions and anecdotes. Written with passion and flair, his updates have explored the continuing impact of the six featured musicians, tackling the posthumous life of Elvis, Robert Johnson’s rediscovery by a new generation of musicians, and Randy Newman’s unlikely second career writing film scores for Disney blockbusters. Marcus’s encyclopaedic knowledge and trenchant opinions make it a delight to dip into this section. With meticulous details of albums, re-issues, bootlegs and live recordings, it’s an essential listener’s companion to his six pioneers, their contemporaries and their successors.


‘When the editors at The Folio Society showed me what they’d come up with for a new, illustrated edition, it was a shock of recognition and precisely a dream come true.’

  1. Greil Marcus, from his new note on the illustrations

This is the only English-language edition of Mystery Train to include illustrations. The first section of the book contains evocative black-and-white photography, portraying American life from the 1930s to the 1970s. Many of these images are taken from the archives of the Farm Security Administration, set up to document the nation during the Great Depression, and include work by the great photographer Dorothea Lange – and which the author describes as ‘the only artwork I’d ever fantasised about’. 

The book also makes use of pictures from eminent rock ‘n’ roll photographers of the era, including Elliott Landy, best known for his images of Woodstock, and Alfred Wertheimer, who captured some of the most iconic shots of Elvis. The fully updated Notes and Discographies section includes an eight-page section of album covers in full colour.

A good part of the impact of rock ’n’ roll had to do with its anachronistic essence, the way it seemed to come out of nowhere – the big surprise that trivialised the events that governed daily life.

About Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus was the first Records editor at Rolling Stone in 1969, and later wrote often for Creem, the Village Voice, Artforum, Interview, the Believer, Another Room, and many other publications. Among his books are Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), The Dustbin of History (1995), The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (1997, 2011), The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice (2006), The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs (2014), and Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the stubborn myth of The Great Gatsby (2020). With Sean Wilentz he is the editor of The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad (2004), and with Werner Sollors of A New Literary History of America (2009). Since 1986 he has written the monthly column ‘Real Life Top 10’, with commentary on songs, albums, movies, politics, novels, commercials, TV shows, and overheard remarks.

Greil Marcus has taught at Princeton, the CUNY Graduate Center, New York University, and often in the American Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. From 2007 through 2014 he taught the class ‘The Old. Weird America’ on the American commonplace song at the New School University in New York. He was born in San Francisco and lives across the Bay in Oakland.

About the Illustrations

Photographers whose works feature in the new edition include Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Elliott Erwitt, Elliott Landy, Walker Evans and Alfred Wertheimer.


You May Also Like

  1. Mayflower


    Nathaniel Philbrick


    This lavishly illustrated edition of Mayflower meets you on board a storm-lashed ship filled with resolute Pilgrims and leaves you a generation later in the blood-soaked new American nation.

  2. Working


    Studs Terkel


    The fascinating working lives of ordinary people are revealed in Studs Terkel’s masterful chronicle of American life, published as an illustrated edition for the first time by Folio.